|No soil, no fungi, no understory - sad trees on an urban street|
I thought I'd write about trees. This is prompted by the seemingly egregious (but probably entirely justified) decision by Doncaster Council to fell a row of mature limes along a street in their patch. This, of course, brought back the story from neighbouring Sheffield which came over all lumberjack a year or two ago resulting in lots of shouting from all and sundry.
Months after work was halted following initial protests, after dark on Monday evening workers fenced off the four remaining trees on the road and on Tuesday began sawing them down, prompting local activists to climb the trees, and protest beneath them.
The Council has removed 60 trees (I note with curiosity that the felling only became a story after 56 trees were already firewood) from Middlefield Road in Bessacar and lots of people are posting the resulting barren streetscene with sad faced emojis and outraged comments. The Council explains that it is removing the trees because "(t)he trees and roots on Middlefield Road have been causing safety issues and damage to boundary walls, driveways and footpaths for a number of years".
I was a local councillor for 24 years and, for a good few of those years, lived in a property with mature trees all along its boundary (which for reasons of location encompassed over 20 neighbours). Trees are a problem. Except that is when they present a political opportunity (and when this opportunity has gone the trees return to their previous staus of 'problem'). This isn't an anti-tree thing but a description of the reality - read that Doncaster Council explanation again - safety issues and damage to boundary walls, driveways and footpaths. You've spotted something there haven't you?
The reason for Doncaster Council's belated decision to remove the lime trees is that local people - probably not the ones hugging the trees - have complained to the Council about the Council's trees. "That tree's roots have damaged my garden wall", "the tree is taking all my light", "how do you know its safe, it might crush my car, my child could be in the garden" - these and a hundred other complaints and concerns are what you get if you're the local councillor (or the owner of the naughty trees).
The owners of trees, even Councils, patiently explain the rules of trees to people. "No it isn't my reponsibility to pick up the leaves in your garden", "yes you get seedling trees growing, just pull them up", "you can remove branches overhanging your property so long as this doesn't kill the tree", "no I don't have to pay for removing those branches, they're your problem so your cost", "yes, I have a responsibility to ensure the tree is safe and it is checked regularly", "yes if my tree blows over in a storm, your home insurance will cover the damage, you do have home insurance?"
Street trees add a further risk because of the enthusiasm of people for sueing councils when they trip over on pavements. As an aside, this is (along with cost) one big reason why councils replace flagstones and paving stones with tarmac. Returning to trees, they damage the pavements - you've all seen it cracked, stones lifted - and the public complain about this damage: "it's not safe" they cry and the highways officer trundles out to look and, given what's plain to see, has to agree with the complaining residents. So they summon the arboriculturalist (usually referred to as "trees") who looks at the tree and says "nice tree, no reason to cut it down". This process is repeated year after year until one day the arboriculturalist says something like "this tree is old and could be unsafe", which is enough for the highways people to get out the chain saws and remove the source of all those endless complaints. It's replaced with another, smaller and less troubling tree.
Putting trees in rows on streets, surrounded by bricks and concrete is, as Peter Wohlleben observed in "The Hidden Life of Trees", an act amounting to cruelty - in effect caging in the trees:
"Are you surprised that summer storms topple a particularly large number of street trees? Their puny underground anchoring systems - which in Nature could cover more than 700 square yards and are now restricted to an area shrunk to a tiny percentage of that - are not capable of supporting trunks that weigh many tons."
Wohlleben goes on to describe how street trees can't cool down at night, live in a world of constant light and an environment of exhaust fumes. Such trees lack the fungal and insect support systems that make the forest a pleasure and are damaged by dog pee and salt. We like the trees for all those good, green and caring reasons but simply plonking trees in cramped rows alongside the street is not, for forest trees like those limes in Doncaster, the right environment.
We now have national campaigns for more street trees but maybe we need to think differently. Instead of planing the trees alongside the road and storing up all those problems for future residents as well as making the poor tree suffer, why not design suburbia with marginalia, with undeveloped pockets left to their own foresty devices? Why not drop the 'gentle' density proposal and go in the opposite direction with bigger house plots featuring more garden - communal or private? Why not wide central, tree lined boulevards where the trees have the space needed without crowding the houses?
Trees are important. Britain - England especially - has done a good job recovering from a historically low level of tree cover of the mid-20th century. Today England's level of tree cover approaches that of the 11th century, still a long way short of the forest extent of Germany or Italy but a steady recovery back to ancient levels of woodland. But more than just trees, what we should be planting are woods. As Robert Macfarlane describes in Underland, woods are almost entities themselves, a mixture of trees, plants, fungi, lichen and moss that function as a whole providing a living space for insects, birds and small mammals. Plonking trees in rows because they look good is the equivalent of the old-fashioned zoo but, instead of cages filled with unhappy animals for humans to gawk at, we get rows of sad trees assuaging human guilt about our environment.
Organisations like Create Streets argue for more street trees with what amounts to an aesthetic abandon leavened by the occasional hint that more greenery makes cities healthier. But at no point do they consider the idea from the trees' perspective - what is the best environment for these trees to thrive - preferring a sort of human arrogance that results in poor quality trees lacking in the support systems allowing for a real woodland eco-system. Yes, let's get more urban woodland, let's rewild redundant city spaces instead of piling up another high rise. But let this not be simply trees neatly spaced out by architects and stuck in little concrete holes where they spend their shortened lives seeking water, fungi and friendship.